The Investment Column: Blacks scales new peaks

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The Independent Online
It has been a volatile few years at Blacks Leisure, the camping and sports retailer run by Simon Bentley. The company has slipped in and out of loss, cut its dividend and completely overhauled the business.

But things have taken a dramatic turn for the better in the last 12 months. The shares have more than quadrupled in the past year and shot up a further 14p to 144p yesterday.

The reversal of fortune owes something to the popularity of branded sportswear, with companies such as Nike and Reebok pumping millions into sponsorship and advertising.

But internal re-structuring has helped too. The company has sold most of the distribution businesses, including the troublesome Quaser football boot brand which forced Blacks into loss at the half-time stage last year. The next candidate for disposal is Miss Sam, a loss-making clothing manufacturer which makes garments for childrenswear retailers such as Tammy.

That should leave Blacks focused on retailing through three chains, First Sport, Blacks Leisure and Active Venture, all of which are going well as yesterday's full-year profits demonstrated.

Profits jumped from pounds 610,000 to pounds 2.2m in the year to February. Like-for- like sales rose by 22 per cent across the group, a rise hardly anyone on the high street can match. Sales are up by a further 25 per cent in the 12 weeks since the year end, though it is hard to see this level being sustained.

All three retail formats are set for expansion, with 12 more branches of First Sport to be opened this year. Two or three branches of Blacks Leisure, the outdoor leisure stores, will be added and an extra pounds 1m spent on refurbishments.

Williams de Broe is forecasting profits of pounds 5.4m, which puts the shares on a forward rating of 12. This is still a discount to rivals. But if you bought shares at any time in the last four years, it is perhaps time to take some profits.

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